This week we look into the next sermon for our series Two Sides of the Coin. I want to share a pair of stories, stories of people I have known. There are many people that make up the characters, but their stories are summed up in the lives of characters I’ll call Terry and Alex. Terry grew up in church. He went weekly with his family to a very conservative church. Into his teenage years, like many, he wandered away and as a young adult left for a time. After some soul searching, he re-embraced or maybe, truly embraced the religion of his upbringing. He became an apologist of sorts, defending his faith against all comers with a fierce veracity and serving the church with great fervor. But Terry had questions. The more he asked these questions, the more muddled his answers got. He went to trusted mentors and teachers but found their responses to his questions either weak and hollow or found they had no answers at all. He continued his search and finally came to this conclusion: religion had no real answers for real life. Terry became an atheist, deciding there were no answers in the faith of his childhood. To this day, years later, he maintains his atheistic stance.
Alex is a different story. Born into a family of teachers, Alex was always at home with the search for knowledge. She was an inquisitive child who read often and asked questions more often. She attended church services occasionally with friends but found the idea of evangelical salvation less compelling than the actual teachings of Jesus, which she seldom saw lived out among the church. Growing into adulthood, she found charity work a fulfilling means of spirituality. She regularly read a cross section of religious literature finding wisdom from their teachings outside of the structure of their institutions. Falling somewhere between atheist and agnostic, she found the idea of bettering your fellow human being and showing kindness to all as the true definition of spirituality.
Both stories are composites of people I know or have known. They illustrate these two very fast-growing groups in the American religious landscape: the nones and dones. Nones are people who do not identify with any organized religion. They may be spiritual in some way or not, but they do not consider themselves part of any religious institution. “The “Dones” are the folks who are done with church. They are otherwise Christian but due to church politics, lack of hospitality, anti-gay culture, or other reasons decide to walk away and not affiliate.” Often, people of both groups have found themselves hurt by the church or church people and as a result, dissociated with religion.
For some people, these stories elicit strong responses. When I have talked about this with members of other churches, I usually hear someone say something along the lines of, “They gave up on their church family” or “They’ve abandoned the faith”. Another response is to quote the verse from Hebrews about not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. The general idea is that these people gave up or didn’t give the church a chance. Another response is that they’re wishy-washy, they never really believed in the first place. One way or another, the nones and dones are responsible for not being in the church and it’s their fault or responsibility to be here not ours to go get them and baby them into being here. I’ve also heard many who are simply saddened by their absence. They remember a time when those people were part of the congregation, and they don’t know why they wouldn’t want to be part of it now. It’s not an issue of blame or fault, it’s an issue of loss and absence.
These two groups are currently the two fastest growing categories in the religious world. And this doesn’t just affect Christianity in America. Mosques and synagogues also report a downturn in attendance and participation, feeling the absence of the nones and dones or the unaffiliated, especially ‘post-Covid’. The Pew Research group estimates that about 64% of Americans are currently Christian, while the unaffiliated make up 30% of the population. At the current rate of growth and decline in America, by 2070 Christians will only make up 35% off the population while the unaffiliated will rise to as much as 52% of the population and at least 34%. While these sound like dire predictions, they are based on trends and trends can change. But for that to happen we, the church, will need to change. According to writer Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, Pew research says,
Roughly half of the ‘nothing in particular’ group said that the religious teachings and the positions churches take on social/political issues were important factors in their status. Being unaffiliated is not necessarily a rejection of God or even the values of following Jesus. But it does correlate with a disavowal of religious teachings and rejection of what “Christian” stands for politically and socially in our public imagination.
And so we need a change.
There is that word churches love: change. Maybe change isn’t the best way to express it though. Perhaps a better word might be adaptability. Take for example the passage in Acts 17 we read this morning. Paul has made his way to Athens where he is waiting on Silas and Timothy. While waiting, Paul becomes distressed by the idol worship in the city. He engages the Jews and Gentile God worshippers in the synagogue. Then he speaks with people in the marketplace and eventually with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill. Since the people of Athens love new ideas and philosophies Paul has an audience of curious minds. During the discussion, Paul notices among the idols one dedicated to the unknown god. Inspiration strikes him and Paul makes a connection between the unknown god and the God of the Hebrew people. Some consider Paul unlearned and ignorant, a rube from a backwoods hole in the wall. Others find his conversation engaging and ask him to speak again. At the end of Acts 17, “Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others.”
Notice how Paul adapts to the situation, recognizing where the people are and relating to them there rather than insisting they come to where he is. I think Paul offers us a method for changing the trend of decline. I think it involves the church adapting to new ways of expressing the message of Jesus, new ways of meeting people where they are, new ways of living into the Way of Jesus. More than anything, it will require us to get out of our comfort zones in both thinking and practice. I think it involves seeing church as community and people not buildings and places. I think it calls us to ministry to all rather than people management and control. And I think it calls us to life practice rather than institutional discipleship. I think this idea can be expressed as belong/believe/become.
For many churches, many I have known and served, the model has been become/believe/belong. What that means is first, people must come to us. They must become or be what we think Christian looks like, acts like, sounds like. Then they have to say the right words, parrot the right ideas and political beliefs. Once they do that, they can belong to our local Jesus club. The Jesus way, and the way I think Paul engaged people in the passage is more like belong/believe/become. Notice Paul speaks to them on their terms, on their turf, and as equals among the Jews, God worshippers, and philosophers. He speaks to them as one of them, a fellow human being on a spiritual journey. He then gives them the opportunity to hear his story, his experience with the God “who gives life, breath, and everything else.” Only then, after being treated with respect and being invited to share in his story, do people chose to become. Jesus offers an even greater example in walking with the disciples. They are treated as brothers and sisters, traveling the road together with Jesus. They are accepted as they chose or were called to be part of the group. They are taught by the very words of Jesus and in time, by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, they become the Apostles, the ones sent with the message of Jesus’ Way.
So, what do we want to be? Do we want to be the kind of church that is welcoming, embracing, loving? Do we want to be the kind of place that bucks the trend and welcomes the nones, dones, the hurting, the hounded, the marginalized? Do we want to reorient our thinking and practices to make space for these? Are we or do we want to be a belong/believe/become church? If we do, it starts with heart change. It starts with looking at people as made in the image of God and accepting them where they are not where we want them to be. It starts with trusting the Holy Spirit to do the believe/become part of the equation while we embrace the belong part.
Otherwise, we’re just part of the trend.
 Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity. Broadleaf Books. Minneapolis. © 2020, p.160
 Acts 17:34
 Acts 17:25
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